During the 2008 fire season the Anderson Valley Fire Department woke up one morning to 11 major lighting fires in the valley. This was about 9 fires more than the department could reasonably fight at one time. Some areas had evacuations but many residents stayed and helped fight the fires and pretected their own homes and property. There were no injuries to any residents and no major structures were lost.
Australia has developed a "prepare, stay and defend" policy. Some suggest that parts of California could benifet from this policy. Below is an article on the stay and defend policy. Before you make this decision you should know the two points of view that exist in your area as well as the regulations concerning clearences.
The are two points of view, one from Colin Wilson, Fire Chief of Anderson Valley and the other is from a more political body, the County Fire Chief's Association. Both have important points of view and both should be studied and given serious thought before you chose to stay and defend your property from fire. To help you with this decision feel free to call your fire chief and discuss the subject with him. You should also know the current regulations concerning clearences around your home. Click here to go to Cal Fire regulations.
Anderson Valley Fire Chief (recently retired), Colin Wilson
I have counseled property owners for several years that "stay and defend" is an option that they may consider under some conditions. First, they must be in good enough physical shape to work in arduous and stressful conditions. Second, they must have done good defensible space clearing such that there is not enough fuel (vegetation) surrounding the house to support big fire. Third, they must provide themselves with an adequate water supply and have a sure fire method of delivering it (gravity, or a portable pump). Above all else, they must have sufficient "survivable space" that even if everything burns all at once around them they will be able to "shelter in place" and survive without injury. This means that they have an area that will not burn, such as a pond, green lawn, rocked parking area or other space that is definitely non-combustible and that this area has reduced vegetation around it such that it will not support large enough flames to burn them when it ignites. All of the above must be considered with awareness of the fire conditions (weather, slope and fuel) that are present at the time of the fire.
In my opinion, in most conditions in Mendocino County, "Stay and Defend" is still a viable option most of the time. A fire in late summer with hot dry conditions and wind would obviously be an exception. Many property owners will elect to stay and fight regardless of what we tell them. I think its a good idea to give these folks some sound advice on how to prepare and plan so that they can, hopefully, make good decisions that have a high probability of success and, also hopefully, ensure that they will not become the next victim.
We all make choices in life and there is always some degree of risk. People have the right, both legally and ethically to make this decision for themselves. I've done a great job of preparing my home for the inevitable fire that will come and I plan to stay and defend it in almost all conditions. I understand why the recent tragedies in Australia have raised the anti in some respects and pushed the pendulum strongly in the "life safety" direction but I still feel its reasonable to provide residents with the information they need to adequately prepare themselves and make sound decisions on this very important issue.
Mendocino County Fire Chief's Association
The following is the approved position of the County Fire Chief's Association Executive Board regarding the "Leave Early or Stay and Defend Program."
The following joint statement was issued today by FIRESCOPE and the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Fire Task Force, The two groups consist of local fire chiefs from throughout California, the CAL FIRE director and officials from federal agencies, along with organizations representing rank-and-file firefighters.
The predominent duty of the fire service is protection of human life. For that reason, the California fire service stands united in the position that early evacuation in the face of life-threatening wildfire is the single most important thing any homeowner can do to protect lives.
The guiding principle of California's approach remains consistent and unwavering: Prepare your property, leave early, and follow all evacuation orders.
The fire service continues to study a variety of ideas and initiatives to enhance the protection of property, including supporting residents in returning to their property as quickly as possible. We also understand the need to find ways to assist those who are unable or unwilling to evacuate in a timely manner.
As a profession, the fire service is anxious to work cooperatively with individual communities, homeowners, local government, media, law enforcement and local, state and federal fire officials to build a fire-safe future. However, any consideration of the Australian so-called “Leave Early or Stay and Defend” policy would be irresponsible at this time in light of the tragedy in Australia, as well as California’s own experience responding to firestorms.
Given California's ever-present risk of catastrophic wildfire, any fire protection plan must include a determined and forceful commitment to all available fire prevention strategies. In particular, it must recognize the value of building with ignition-resistant materials, maintaining a defensible space around structures, and preparing a home for the arrival of firefighters who have the experience of working under extreme conditions.
Finally, to achieve Fire Adaptive Communities, we must renew our efforts to provide the resources necessary to insure that California's emergency responders will be able to continue to protect the lives and property of its citizens.
FIRESCOPE – Chief P. Michael Freeman (L.A. County), Chair; (323) 881-2411
BLUE RIBBON TASK FORCE –
Chief Sheldon Gilbert (Alameda Co.), (510) 618-3490
Lou Paulson, Pres. CA Professional Firefighters (916) 921-9111
Why California should consider Australia's 'prepare, stay and defend' wildfire policy
Source: University of California - Berkeley
Even as debate rages over the safety of Australia's "Prepare, stay and defend, or leave early" policy of wildfire defense, fire researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and in Australia say that the strategy is worth consideration in California and other regions in the United States. Questions about the policy, which encourages able residents to stay home and actively defend their property from wildfires, are being renewed in the wake of Australia's devastating fires, which began on Feb. 7 and killed 210 people, burned down 1,800 homes and scorched 1,500 square miles of land.
"The key element of Australia's policy is to train willing homeowners to protect their homes in an active wildfire," said Scott Stephens, associate professor of fire science and co-director of UC Berkeley's Center for Fire Research and Outreach. "What the Australian strategy does is actively engage and help homeowners to become part of the solution rather than just to need evacuation. However, it should be noted that some California communities are so vulnerable that a 'prepare and leave early' strategy may be the only option."
The Australian approach also includes a more strategic land-use management policy in which decisions about new housing in areas vulnerable to wildfires are overseen at the state level, ensuring a more consistent standard for fire-resistant building codes and in urban development, the researchers said.
In contrast to Australia, the researchers said, fire agencies in California focus primarily on mandatory evacuations followed by fire suppression. Not only has this approach not reduced property loss, it could increase the risk for people if the evacuations are carried out at the last minute, the researchers argued.
Over the past several years, scientists from UC Berkeley's Center for Fire Research and Outreach have been collaborating with colleagues from Australia to study best practices in an effort to reduce the loss of life and property from wildfires. Their report on what lessons U.S. wildfire management officials can learn from Australia is scheduled for publication today (Thursday, Feb. 26) in the open-access journal Environmental Research Letters.
Their paper comes nearly three weeks after the southern Australia wildfires. The looming question is whether the "Prepare, stay and defend, or leave early" policy helped or hurt in that disaster - an issue that is sure to be addressed in an official inquiry established to investigate the country's deadliest wildfire in recorded history.
With the verdict from the latest fire pending, scientists are looking at a recent review of the policy, which was based upon 60 years of historical evidence. That review concluded that the policy is fundamentally sound.
The authors of the Environmental Research Letters paper point to the beneficial culture of preparation inherent in the policy. For instance, months or even years before fire season begins, residents are involved in reducing the vulnerability of their homes with such activities as clearing dangerous vegetation around their property or installing ember-blocking screens for their attic vents.
The researchers also emphasized that homeowners in Australia go through an annual training program run by local fire agencies, and are provided with appropriate supplies such as hoses, radios and protective clothing.
"The Australian approach is different from what many call 'shelter-in-place,' an American concept stemming from other environmental hazards and connoting more passive action by residents," said co-author Max Moritz, cooperative extension specialist in wildland fire and co-director with Stephens of the Center for Fire Research and Outreach. "There is active participation from the homeowners before and possibly during a fire. In the process, they become more aware of the risks of living in an urban-wildland interface, and both homes and people are better prepared to handle fires when they inevitably occur."
The Australian wildfire management strategy, adopted after the country's 1983 "Ash Wednesday" brushfires, is based upon the premise that it is often riskier to leave a home as a fire front approaches than to stay sheltered while actively defending it. In that 1983 fire, 75 people died and many more were injured, most while outside their homes trying to escape.
"The clearest evidence was that late evacuation is dangerous," said the paper's co-author John Handmer, director of the Centre for Risk and Community Safety at The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University in Melbourne, Australia. "While deaths did occur inside houses, twice as many deaths occurred in vehicles or out in the open. This evidence has led to the Australasian Fire Authorities Council catch-phrase, 'houses protect people and people protect houses.'"
In the event of a wildfire, homeowners in Australia are taught to prepare their homes for the wildfire front and vigilantly patrol their properties for spot fires that may have started from flying embers. If the front of the wildfire reaches the home, residents are instructed to shelter inside as the flames burn past.
This is a smart strategy even for those who may intend to evacuate early but can't because of the speed of the fire's advance, the researchers said. "Chances of survival are significantly greater inside the home than outside in a car when the fire's front is upon you," said Stephens.
A number of communities in the United States, including counties in Southern California and in rural Montana, have already begun emulating aspects of the Australian approach, but the researchers said implementing the policy piecemeal could be a mistake.
"The state of California should take the lead on this to ensure that communities that adopt this policy receive the proper training, and that the policy is implemented properly," said Stephens. "Giving homeowners the option of staying home during a wildfire can be deadly if done incorrectly and without adequate preparation. It would take just one terrible instance of a family getting killed because they were trying to save their homes for the policy to be abandoned."
The researchers pointed out that it takes a significant amount of mental preparation by the homeowners to not panic and flee when flames are licking at their doors. "The noise alone of a wildfire front is phenomenal," said Stephens. "Then the sun goes away, and the sky goes dark. It's haunting, and people need to understand that before they sign up for this."
An important part of the policy is awareness of one's limitations and the potential for panic, the researchers said, as is knowing that preparing a home as much as possible but then leaving early in the event of a wildfire may be the safest option.
"The Australian model is partly based on homeowners having some time to prepare for an oncoming fire," said Moritz. "But what if there is no warning and homeowners suddenly find a wall of flame racing toward them, a scenario that may have been at play in the recent Australian fires? It is this surprise factor that may end up playing a key role in determining whether people who would otherwise leave early have the chance to do so. In these 'sudden onset' fire situations, even the success of our own policy in California for evacuating everyone early would be challenged."
The researchers acknowledged that the Australian policy may not be appropriate in many areas of California and the United States. For instance, it probably would not work in areas dominated by a high percentage of vacation homes where owners are absent much of the year.
Before adopting the policy in any part of California, it would be necessary to determine which areas in the state might be candidates for the Australian approach, said Moritz. "Such a map would take into account what we know about fire patterns, weather, age of structures and the ability to evacuate," he said. "We need the equivalent of a flood zone map for fire to better understand our own landscape and risk."
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